1) The Manual of Detection has drawn a lot of comparisons to various authors: from Friedrich Dürrenmatt to Dashiell Hammett, via Kafka and Paul Auster, taking in Italo Calvino. Which, if any, of these authors were an influence?
All these authors to some extent, though Italo Calvino most substantially. While in college I studied Calvino with his translator, William Weaver, and that was an experience that had a lot to do with my wanting to become a writer. Calvino’s work always strikes me as open, generous, and expansive. There’s an invitation to participate and play along, an acknowledgment of the reader as co-creator. I like to think I’ve written a mystery novel that Calvino might have enjoyed.
2) There’s a good few noir stylings in your book: the detective agency, the missing detective (the legendary Travis Sivart, famous for solving “The Man Who Stole November Twelfth”), the femme fatale and, of course, a murder. Yet with the stolen alarm clocks (resulting in the city falling asleep at strange times and dreaming) there’s a Lewis Carroll fairytale quality to The Manual of Detection. Would you agree?
The book is essentially a fable disguised as a detective novel. I began with some ideas about sleepwalkers, a file clerk, and a dream conspiracy, but once some detectives appeared on the scene I needed to learn how to write a mystery novel. That structure turned out to be just what I needed to tell the story I wanted to tell, and I came to admire the genre tremendously. What was surprising to me was how well the fairy tale and the detective story complemented one another. There’s something strange and dreamlike about my favorite works of hardboiled fiction – even more so about their film noir counterparts. And both the fairy tale and the detective novel have certain archetypes at their heart which I found compatible: knights and quests and witches, detectives and case files and femmes fatales…
3) Maybe cos it’s getting coverage at the moment, but your book shares some similarities with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Charles Unwin is a little like Arthur Dent, there’s a guide book at the centre of both books, Douglas Adams’ towels and your umbrellas). Michael Moorcock read The Manual as steampunk and cyberpunk noir; are you a fan of science fiction? And what’s the deal with umbrellas?
I do love science fiction. Though truth be told, I was nearly finished with the book and hadn’t thought at all about The Hitchhiker’s Guide until a friend of mine – Gavin Grant, a writer and the publisher of Small Beer Press – mentioned it. It’s a handy thing, the text within the text, because it’s something to bounce back to as a kind of counterpoint to the narrative thread. I think I gave Mr. Unwin a copy of this manual because it’s something I wanted myself: a guidebook not just on solving mysteries, but on how to tell this kind of story.
I was simultaneously surprised and delighted by that Michael Moorcock review. I didn’t intend for The Manual of Detection to be read as steampunk, though there is some strange, antique technology in the book, and the narrative voice takes cues from Victorian-era fiction. But that’s part of the fun of genre: it can operate as a kind of lens, revealing new facets.
As for umbrellas, I’m not sure I can say more than can be said about any obsession. I’ll just submit that the umbrella is the perfect machine and leave it at that.
4) The city is made up of interlinked yet distinct worlds, is it based on anywhere in particular? Also, the architectural archetypes are very strong – the buildings and places are as memorable as the characters – how long did it take you to chart the city?
The city was inspired by a number of real and unreal locations. Parts of it I think are recognizable. I lived in New York for many years, and several bits of that city sneaked in: Grand Central Terminal and Central Park in particular, and the museum in the book is an amalgam of the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History. But at the other end of town you have the Travels-No-More Carnival, which is a refuge for the city’s criminal underworld.
My stepfather is an architect, my uncle is a builder, and my brother is pursuing a career in urban planning. I grew up around drafting tables, blueprints, and construction sites. I spent a lot of time drawing things on graph paper. As a result, I think, I’m keenly aware of the composition of physical structures. The layout of the city in the book became increasingly important to me as locations took on specific resonance. It’s important, for example, that the Agency office building stands at the border between the two halves of the city, and is itself a peculiar entity, with its visible and its hidden domains.
I wasn’t finished charting the city until I wrote the last chapter of the book. The writing process was in part an exploration of the landscape, and Unwin’s movements through it – from the Agency’s upper floors to its bottom-most, from the halls of the museum to the mirrored halls of the carnival’s funhouse – are all significant.
5) What’s next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m writing short stories right now, and I’m beginning work on a new novel. It’s too early to say much about it, but it’s an adventure novel, and there’s a train in it. Probably also an umbrella or two.
First posted: Wednesday, October 28th, 2009.